Wednesday, November 20, 2013


From time to time, you like to check on your past, see how it is doing, wonder if you have in some way lost touch with it and the things it has set in motion within you.

There was no particular reason for your decision to check on one of your favored grammar schools of the five you attended, nothing more than the theme of adventures walking to and from home to school, recounting the idiosyncratic rush to get there and the leisure of dallying on the way home.

Thus your first stop.  Providence, Rhode Island. A great city for a youngster to explore, in particular thanks to the easy availability of your sister's bus and trolley pass, then, wonder of wonders, your own, and the added outings of Saturday and Sunday explorations of a city you'd come to love almost as much as the Los Angeles to which you felt so bonded.

Providence has changed in numerous ways.  The Elmgrove streetcar line is no longer there.  Nor is John Howland Elementary School.  The best you could find was a mention of it:

John Howland School

Box 4, folder 12. Poems circa 1920, by students?

Nothing more.  John Howland School is gone.  To be sure, there are other schools, including one named for Robert Kennedy, which you quite like.  Poems, circa 1920, by students? is of no interest to you, unless you could see this box of things from 1920 as a portion of a design for a novella,

The disappearance of John Howland Elementary School led you to the curiosity regarding your least favorite grammar school, Public School # Ten, or Number Ten School, Perth Amboy, NJ.  Again, a nada.  The same is true of Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, and, directly across the street from it, the Ida M. Fisher Junior High School.

Los Angeles is another matter; things are supposed to disappear in Los Angeles, undergo sudden, vast changes, or disappear altogether, replaced by yet other variations on the Los Angeles theme, which is a deft combination of wistful thinking, robust enthusiasm, and a love of exotic shapes and colors.  6145 1/2 Orange Street, a Mediterranean-style fourplex, the place your parents moved during the downward spiral of the Great Depression, is now subsumed in a condominium complex with Yuppie aspirations.

Things change in Los Angeles because luck changes, interests change, people make enough money to move to Beverly Hills or Brentwood or build risky view houses, cantilevered over the major canyons, Coldwater, Laurel, and Beverly Glen, dissecting Los Angeles into a larger version of Territory, a game boys played with pocket knives, etching large, boyish rectangles in gravelly soil.

The White Chili Bowl franchise became an ice cream franchise then became flattened to reemerge as individual ventures, asking for a moment or two or recognition.  The Earl Scheib $19 for a car paint, $29 for a deluxe job, franchise came and went.  So did Madman Muntz, who, not content with selling used cars, began to manufacture Television sets.

For the thirty-odd years of your tenure at USC, you saw the sign more iconic in its way than the HOLLYWOOD sign (at one point HOLLYWOODLAND) in the hills above Hollywood, of Felix, the cartoon cat, logo of Felix Chevrolet.  Any number of managers wished to replace the sign, change the name of the car agency, but Los Angeles being what it was and still is, the sign was accorded historic status, which meant it must be saved.

Other things came and went.  The Sontag Drug Store chain, the Thrifty Drug Store chain, Currie's Ice cream with the Mile-High Cone. The Pig 'n Whistle Restaurant, the Brown Derby Restaurant, and not to forget for one moment The Kentucky Boys Hamburger Palace on Pico Boulevard just a tad north of Fairfax.

Canter's Deli remains and is an icon, so is Pink's Hot Dogs on La Brea, but gone are Cohen's Deli and Mrs. Rae's.  So is the enormity that was the Mark C. Bloom gas and tire emporium on La Brea.

The Taix French Restaurant on Commercial Street has moved to a more opulent setting on Sunset, and the Angel's Flight Cable Car was shut down for a time, then moved while many of the homes of Bunker Hill were moved to other locations in order to accommodate an attempt to gentrify a part of the downtown area that had been gentrified in a previous generation and was now beginning to show the sag and peel of age. 

Such changes did not upset you because they were Los Angeles changes and you were able to understand the movie-set-like nature of the terrain.  When The Garden of Allah came down, you were able to relate this closing to the uneasy past F. Scott Fitzgerald had with your city of the Angels, and when the Pickwick Book Store was subsumed by a large chain, so did your contact with the sales clerk who'd been the one to say, much to his regret, when asked by the same F.Scott Fitzgerald if the store had a copy of Gatsby about, I wonder if the author is still alive.  This of course sent Fitzgerald posthaste net door to Musso & Frank's restaurant, famed for many dishes and also for its hefty martinis.

The past is always changing, whether you watch it or not, making you aware that it is your past, your memoir, but also your fiction.  The past is your drama, the one you take down to read from time to time to see how you've done for yourself.  You measure yourself against it the way you were measured against pencil marks on many door frames.  You are as eager for it as you were for your high school senior prom, where by some shifting of reality and ingenuity, you had a date with a young lady you'd not dreamed of having as your date.  

You were aware of cause and effect at the time, but not to the nuanced degree it took on as your past overflowed with the changes of things seeming to disappear, then reappear in different forms and for different purposes.  Things you did in the past to effect sophistication became the most purposeful things to be discarded.  Choices you made in happy abandon became stage directions as you set foot as an actor in the one drama you could not have imagined, where you could not rely on memorized lines because they would have done you no good.

As you sat drinking coffee last week at a bakery,  a man approached you, his face energized by enthusiasm.  "I'd have recognized you anywhere,"  he told you.  "You've maybe lost some hair--"  He ruffled his own skimpy head,  "--but who among us has everything, eh?"  

He was eager to introduce you to his wife, Gloria, he said, who was at the main counter, selecting brioche and croissants.  "Gloria, look who I've found."

You struggled for a name.  Gloria and--?  Gloria and who?

She, Gloria, had the ease and presence of someone who exercises regularly.  You would expect her to have kale and arugula and quinoa in her diet.  She motioned him to her with a discreet crook of her finger.

"Look,"  he said to her.  "To think we'd find him here."

She whispered things to him, during which his face seemed to crumble, a souffle falling.  "No,"  he said.  "I can't believe it."

She whispered again.  He looked over at you as she spoke.

A few moments later, he approached you.  "I'm so sorry,"  he said.  "Your mannerisms.  Your posture.  You look just like him.  I'm so sorry."

He, whoever he was, and Gloria, were not of your past; they were of someone else's past.

You must be careful to recognize your past, hopeful you can remember it by name.  

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